Words: So So Modern

Following their appearance at Hong Kong indie venue Hidden Agenda in May 2013, I caught up with Grayson Gilmour from New Zealand band So So Modern to chat about music and life on the road… 

So So Modern rock it out during a visceral live show

So So Modern rock it out in their visceral fashion

How many times have you played in Hong Kong and what is your impression of the city?

Our recent show at Hidden Agenda was actually our first show in Hong Kong, I think we’ve all passed through the country as individuals, but as a band this was our first visit! We stayed somewhere in Mid-Levels, and with a few days spare either side of the show, got to know the city quite well… quite an exciting place to be!

 “It feels like things are really taking off in Asia right now”

Did you guys get out and catch some of the food, or indeed, a taste of our drinking scene?

Sure, we made our way around a few spots, but our favourites would have to be the ‘local’ spots hidden away from the main streets that only someone who’s in the know can find! Back alley diners at 2am with the taxi drivers of Hong Kong!

What have been highlights from the recent tour? Any crazy or unexpected stuff go down?

We made our way across Japan, China and Taiwan over a month, each country had something unique and amazing going on, but I think the strangest highlight would’ve been playing the MIDI festival outside of Beijing when we missed our set after an altercation with the authorities, only to find that inside the festival, everything was running late and out of order anyway, so we ended up playing between a couple of fantasy/thrash-metal bands to a huge crowd of Chinese people who probably thought they were watching another band!

Do people in Asia respond differently to the music than say in English speaking countries?

Sure, the response to SSM (So So Modern) was surprisingly different between Asian countries, from the quiet and intensely observational crowds in Japan, to the crowd-surfing maniacs in Taiwan! The local people we encountered were incredibly enthusiastic about what we were doing, and eager to get more bands through their cities… it feels like things are really taking off in Asia right now.

Hong Kong is known for changing all the time. People move, things get knocked down, other things go up. How has So So Modern changed in style over the years?

Totally, we began more as a bunch of punks making dance music and nowadays we’re one member less, writing genre-less songs and one hour long long psych outs! Next for SSM will be a strongly electronic phase, as we’re an international band now; three members, three countries!

Sometimes categorising music becomes tedious… Is there even a point of trying to pigeonhole your band? Can we just say ‘rock’? I’ve seen ‘post-rock’, ‘post-punk’ etc

SSM has always operated without boundaries, which is why we’ve never been able to answer the question of genre confidently, but for an easy answer we just go with post-punk, as it embraces an attitude, ethos and multiplicity of styles that fit with the band.

The internet opened up culture, but globally people are becoming more similar in many ways. Do you see uniqueness in the different places you tour in, or are people and places becoming more similar?

Indeed, it’s quite strange to witness the homogenised aspects of global culture, but for now it only really effects ‘mainstream’ culture and the people who subscribe to it. Everywhere we’ve been on this tour has had a unique quality to it, people put a part of themselves into making their music, and it shows… where else but Japan could you find a group like the Open Reel Ensemble? They’re one of a kind. Ultimately, I think what the internet can really promote is cross-cultural exchange… a world of inspiration is literally at our fingertips.

Is it exhausting incorporating all the influences into your sound? How do you see yourself developing it?

I wouldn’t say so, we’re very open with our writing process, songs occur and develop naturally without making them a particular style or amalgam, but I would say the future looks very interesting!

Is it difficult to encapsulate the energy of a live show into recording?

Definitely, I think we’re a totally different band live versus being in the studio… check out the difference between the recorded and live versions of our songs on our Bandcamp! We used to get slightly hung up on our energy not translating so well to our recordings, but nowadays we approach recordings with the intention of sounding different.

“We’re a fun-loving and no-bullshit group of individuals”

How do you balance being a fun loving band but touching on serious issues? Is being less serious a good way to approach an issue like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA)?

I think it’s more a reflection of what we’re like as people, we’re a fun-loving and no-bullshit group of individuals… we’re serious when it comes to particular topics, but we’re not extremists, we welcome discussion, and open discourse! Writing a song like Transpacific Express was a way for us to address the TPPA (which has been subject to much controversy), and bring some much needed attention to it.

With the endless touring, how do you maintain a sense of home? In a way, does this make So So Modern an international band or a local one now?

Home is wherever you find yourself on tour! We’ve been lucky enough to revisit a few places, mostly across Europe, so in a sense we have a ‘community’ of sorts over there, which is a pleasant change to the slightly nomadic and alienating lifestyle of touring. In the past we’ve always called New Zealand home, but nowadays it’s just me who returns to the deep South! …we’re an international band, with an international outlook now, all we need is to converge in the same place at the same time and we’re good to go!

When I travel with mates we always end up in stupid fights triggered by random things. How do you guys find it?

Having done some pretty extensive touring, we’re good, but we still have our moments! Two rules; “funny, not funny” means shut-up and stop being a jerk, secondly, no-one goes hungry, food tantrums must be avoided at all cost!

With many people getting their music for free, and online retailers not providing a steady flow of income for many bands, is touring the only viable way to go? And if so, how can musicians be expected to survive in the industry, given that there is an inherent dysfunctional element to constant touring?

Touring is really fun, but it’s physically and mentally draining, so we treat touring as more of an adventure or excuse to leave New Zealand, take days off, have fun! Touring is sustainable when you don’t set an end date, but the novelty of being in a different city every night can wear off after a few months! Being the only one in the band who has made music a full time lifestyle, I keep myself afloat by being multi-faceted; film scoring, the odd commercial, publishing, teaching and workshopping, the thing I rely on least is album sales and downloads… nothing is concrete, but it’s certainly interesting!

“We love the big shows just as much as the small ones… many of my favourite shows have been the strange ones”

I bought your Transpacific Express poster because it reminded me of Garbage pail kids and is totally cool. How did you get to know Toby Morris?

That was the inspiration! Kinda shows how old we are, it’s totally lost on our younger crowd! Toby has been a good friend of ours for a long time, and we all love his work. He did our first tour posters years ago, and has done a whole heap since!

I wanna quit my job and do something cool. Do you think there is ever a good time to quit or should you just go and do it?

It’s never the right time, so therefore it’s always the right time! That said, we’re all professional jugglers of the work/life balance.

I don’t think we’d be a functional band if we hadn’t figured out early that ‘all or nothing’ doesn’t work, band life is always a compromise, and everyone’s gotta be on the same page!

Who have you most enjoyed sharing the stage with? Would you say you enjoy the small shows with 20 people and a dog or the huge ones?

We’ve had some amazing experiences as a band, one of our many highlights would be a very small show we played in a Paris with Deerhoof and Dirty Projectors… it was simply humbling to share the stage with them. We love the big shows just as much as the small ones, infact, many of my favourite shows have been the strange ones; anarchist squats in the South of France to sweaty underground shows in the Taiwanese summer!

You have described your sets as an act of endurance, how do you manage to get through them? Does it get harder? How the hell do the Rolling Stones keep doing it?

I don’t think many people would associate ‘keeping fit’ with being a musician, but it’s totally the case, especially on tour. I even make a point of getting fit before hitting the road! It gets easier as you go however; your body clock changes, you get a second wind of energy around 10/11pm when you’re about to go on stage… and from there it kinda becomes routine, you can play/improvise without thinking, everyone becomes synchronised… it’s quite an amazing experience.

Tell me about the 45 minute beats/instrumental mix tape you would like to put out?

Well, it’s really a couple of different projects… firstly, the beat tape idea is a collection of short instrumentals/beats that we *could* finish and release sometime, secondly the 45 minute / 1 hour long song is an alter-ego of the band, called SzoSzo! We’ve recorded this, it’s currently sitting at an hour, and it’s up to me to trim it down a lil’, mix, master and release it! …all in good time of course.

Thanks Grayson!